Selected category: Drinking Water

New EPA model enables comparison of various sources of childhood exposure to lead

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Dr. Ananya Roy is Health Scientist

This week, Environmental Health Perspectives published an important article by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that sheds important light on the various sources of children’s lead exposure. Led by Valerie Zaltarian, the article shares an innovative multimedia model to quantify and compare relative contributions of lead from air, soil/dust, water and food to children’s blood lead level. The model couples existing SHEDS and IEUBK models to predict blood lead levels using information on concentrations of lead in different sources, intake and gut absorption. The predicted blood lead levels compared well with observed levels in the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey population. Given the variety of independent sources of lead exposure, the model provides a critical tool that public health professionals can use to set priorities and evaluate the impact of various potential standards for all children and not just those with the greatest exposure.

This peer-reviewed article builds on a draft report EPA released in January 2017 evaluating different approaches to setting a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water. The report has provided a wealth of insight into a complicated topic. Earlier this year, we used it to show that formula-fed infants get most of their lead exposure from water and toddlers from food, while the main source of lead for the highest exposed children is soil and dust. In our February blog, we provided our assessment of a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water and explained how public health professionals could use it to evaluate homes. The information was also critical to identifying lead in food as an overlooked, but meaningful, source of children’s exposure to lead.

The new article reaffirms the analysis in the January 2017 EPA report and highlights that evaluating source contribution to blood lead in isolation versus aggregating across all sources can lead to very different answers and priorities. A health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water could vary from 0 to 46 ppb depending on age and whether all other sources of lead are considered. For example, a health-based benchmark for infants (birth to six months old) would be 4 ppb or 13 ppb depending on whether or not you consider all sources of exposure.

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New Pew/RWJF report rigorously evaluates options and recommends 10 policies

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

For the past 2 years, the issue of lead – in paint, water, dust, soil, food, toys, and kids’ blood – has been extensively covered in the news. The crises in Flint and East Chicago have laid bare the vulnerability of communities across the U.S. The evidence is now clear that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. What used to be tolerable is no longer acceptable. Evidence from studies of children show clearly that levels of lead in blood affect brain development at levels below those once considered acceptable and should not be tolerated. We must be vigilant to prevent young children’s exposure to lead.

We have already made substantial progress as a nation. From 1999 to 2014, mean blood lead levels in young children dropped 56% and the levels over 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood dropped 86%. This change was due to smart policies, effective regulations, funding, and vigilance from federal, state and local agencies as well as private and non-profit organizations. Despite this headway, lead exposure continues to be a significant problem, preventing our communities from thriving and holding back the future generations from achieving their full potential.

Last year, several organizations developed comprehensive plans1 to eliminate lead exposure. Each added value to the discussion. Today, a new report from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), provides a rigorous analysis of the costs of lead and the impact of various policy solutions to help protect children from the harms of lead exposure. My colleague, Ananya Roy, and I served as advisors on the project.

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Protecting the most vulnerable: Lead in drinking water testing requirements for child care centers

Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager and Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Children under the age of 6 are most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of lead exposure. Even at low levels, lead exposure can harm the brain development of young children – resulting in learning and behavioral problems for the rest of their lives.

The recent national attention on lead in drinking water and reports of high levels in certain schools has spurred action to address the problem in schools. As a result of state-level requirements and voluntary state programs, many schools across the country are testing their drinking water for lead and taking actions to fix problems.

In contrast, child care centers (also called day care centers or early childhood education centers) have gone relatively unnoticed – even though they serve children at their most vulnerable ages.

We decided to take a closer look at the issue by examining state child care licensing regulations, recent legislative actions, and voluntary programs addressing drinking water testing at child care centers. Through our research, we identified several states that have or are developing proactive programs to test for lead in child care centers’ drinking water and take action when high levels are found. Although our focus was on states, we also identified cities addressing this issue with local resources.

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Fourteen communities set goal of replacing more than 240,000 lead pipes and 19 take important steps forward

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Sam Lovell, Project Specialist

An estimated 6 to 10 million homes in the US still get their water from aging lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes and other buildings. As the primary source of lead in drinking water, eliminating LSLs is essential to protecting public health and responding to community concerns.

Communities across the country are taking on the challenges posed by LSLs. EDF considers it important to recognize those leaders who are taking action. In a past blog, we highlighted the work of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative and its 25 members, including EDF, in developing a toolkit to help communities accelerate replacement of LSLs. Additionally, the American Water Works Association – the main organization for drinking water professionals – deserves recognition for its declaration that LSLs need to be eliminated.

Through our review of publicly available information, EDF identified:

  • 14 communities that have publicly set a goal of eliminating LSLs in their jurisdiction – which collectively represents more than 240,000 LSLs. Setting a goal of full replacement is a critical step in the process—while clearly much work remains to ensure that LSLs are safely replaced.
  • 19 other communities that are taking important steps to replace LSLs, but may not yet be ready or willing to set a public goal of full replacement.

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Progress takes vigilance to reduce children’s exposure to lead

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

The United States has made significant progress over the past fifteen years towards reducing children’s exposure to lead. While much more needs to be done to eliminate the more than $50 billion a year in societal costs from lead, the progress is good news for children since it is well known that there is no safe level of lead in children, and it can impair their brain development, contribute to learning and behavioral problems, and lower IQs.

Achieving this progress has required a diligent and ongoing commitment from all levels of government. If we expect to continue to make progress – and not backslide – the federal government needs to remain committed to reducing sources of lead exposure. So far what we’ve seen from the Trump Administration raises serious concerns about any real commitment to protecting children’s health, including from lead.

Lead has a toxic legacy from decades of extensive use in paint, gasoline, and water pipes. As long as lead is in the paint, pipes, and soil where we live, work and play, progress is far from inevitable. Protecting children from lead takes constant vigilance, especially when the paint or plumbing is disturbed. Flint provided a tragic example of what happens when we turn away. Without vigilance, the positive trends we have seen in blood lead levels could all too easily reverse course and go up. That is why the proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget, which would eliminate the agency’s lead-based paint programs, are yet another indication that this Administration is turning its back on protecting children’s health.

Mean blood lead levels in young children dropped 56% from 1999 to 2014

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrates that from 1999 to 2014 the levels of lead in children’s blood or “blood lead levels” (BLL) dropped preciptiously. Average BLLs in young children declined by 56% during that period with the rate of decline increasing after 2010. For children with a BLL greater than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter (µg/dL), the reduction was an impressive 86%. Read More »

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EPA's Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee recommends four top priorities for EPA to protect kids from lead

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

For the past 20 years, the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC), with its diverse members that include pediatricians and industry toxicologists, has been responding to requests for guidance from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators. In December 2016, EPA’s Administrator asked CHPAC to provide the agency with its “highest priority advice” on lead. Citing the children’s health risks posed by lead, the economic and racial disparities and the demonstrated effectiveness of national leadership on the issue, on April 6, CHPAC sent the new administrator, Scott Pruitt, a letter with its four recommended priorities:

  1. Strengthen the Agency’s Lead-Based Paint Hazards Standard for lead in paint, dust, and soil. CHPAC stated that the “best evidence shows that a young child living in a home meeting the current lead dust standard still has a 50% chance of exceeding the CDC reference level for blood lead.” The EPA standard is so insufficient and outdated that on February 1, 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it would require its lead hazard control grantees to meet a more protective level that is one-fourth of EPA’s standard.
  1. Revise the Lead and Copper Rule to reduce lead in drinking water. CHPAC highlighted several high profile incidents of high levels of lead in drinking water and called for EPA to overhaul its 1991 Lead and Copper Rule to better protect children, especially infants dependent on formula for nutrition. CHPAC recommended the revisions be consistent with the recommendations from the agency’s National Drinking Water Advisory Committee and the lessons from recent water system lead contaminations.
  1. Improve risk communication efforts to provide clarity and consistency. CHPAC asked that EPA revise its “Protect Your Family from Lead In Your Home” booklet that is given to every family buying or renting a home built before 1978 so that it more effectively helps families make decisions regarding the risks posed by lead. The committee cited three problems with the booklet, it:
    • insufficiently describes other important lead sources including, but not limited to, drinking water faucets, plumbing, traditional and cultural products, and take-home exposures from work”;
    • treats all homes built before 1978 as equal and does not explain that the likelihood of having lead-based paint varies dramatically based on the age of the home”; and
    • “relies heavily on text rather than graphics making it less effective for some audiences.”
  1. Encourage the Administration’s infrastructure investment program to support healthy housing, childcare facilities, and schools, and safe drinking water. CHPAC recommended that EPA work closely with other federal partners on the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children to help ensure that all Administration infrastructure investment programs make housing, childcare facilities, and schools healthier, and drinking water safer.

The letter was sent a day after the Washington Post reported on a leaked March 21, 2017 agency memo that details how EPA plans to execute the 31% cuts to its overall budget called for in the President’s proposed budget. The article’s headline says it all: “Trump’s EPA moves to dismantle programs that protect kids from lead paint.” If Congress goes along with these cuts, it is difficult to imagine how the agency could fulfill its basic responsibilities much less implement CHPAC’s recommendations to protect kids from lead.

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